When a Limited Education, Illiteracy, or Inability to Speak English Helps You Get Disability

Older applicants are more likely to get disability benefits if they didn't graduate high school or can't read or write.

Some disability applicants, especially older ones, can be approved under Social Security's “grid” rules even if they could probably perform some type of easy, undemanding job. This is particularly true for claimants without high school diplomas and for those who cannot read or write. Here's how it works.

When you apply for disability, Social Security will first look to see if your medical condition qualifies for automatic approval because it "meets a listing.” If your condition doesn’t meet the complicated listing requirements needed for automatic approval (like most), Social Security will look at your age, education level, and "residual functional capacity" to see whether you fit into a disabled category in its grids of medical-vocational guidelines.

The grids are a series of tables that direct a finding of "disabled" or "not disabled" based on a number of factors, which include your education level. The other factors used in the grids are: your age, the skill level of your past work, whether you learned any skills that could be used in a new job, and your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is the physical level of work (for instance, light or sedentary) that you can do on a full-time basis despite your medical condition.

What Are the Different Educational Levels?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) divides education levels into the following categories, which are explained more fully below:

  • limited
  • marginal, and
  • illiterate.

  • unable to speak or communicate in English.

To determine your education level, the SSA considers not only how far you went in school, but factors like how long ago you completed your education, your hobbies, test scores, and other activities.

You will need to provide the SSA with proof of how far you went in school. To get this information, contact the school district you last attended. It is also helpful to give the SSA the results of any tests you took, evidence that you were in a special education program, and any other proof of your education level.

Limited Education

If your last year of school was in the 7th to the 11th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as “limited.” A person with a limited education has reasoning, math, and language skills, but doesn’t have the educational qualifications to do the more difficult tasks needed for skilled and semi-skilled jobs. For this reason, they are generally expected to do only unskilled work.

Having only a limited education will not guarantee an approval of benefits, but if you are older and can only do a limited amount of physical work, and you don't have any skills from your old job that can be transferred to another job, you will likely be approved under the grids. Here are examples where claimants were denied or approved in light of their limited education.

  • A 47-year-old claimant applied for disability because of heart disease and Type-2 diabetes. He attended school through the 8th grade and had an RFC for light work. His past work was as a field hand, which is unskilled work. Despite his limited education, the grid rules directed a finding of not disabled.
  • A 57-year-old claimant applied for disability due to carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. Her last year of school was the 10th grade. Her past work was as a seamstress, which is semi-skilled but didn’t provide her with any skills she could use in another job. Because of her limited education and the other factors discussed, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
  • A 53-year-old man filed for disability because of arthritis in his knees and shoulders. His last year of school was the 9th grade. His past work was as a sorter in a factory, which is classified as unskilled. Even though he had the RFC to do sedentary work, his limited education was one of the factors that the grids used to direct a finding of disabled.

Marginal Education

If you didn’t attend school past the 6th grade, the SSA defines your educational level as “marginal.” A person with only a marginal education generally has the reasoning, math, and language skills to do only simple, unskilled jobs. The SSA considers a marginal education to be a limiting factor for claimants 60 and older. Here is an example.

  • A 62-year-old claimant applied for disability due to arthritis in her hands and advanced Type 2 diabetes. Her past work was as an unskilled laborer and she had a 5th-grade education. Even though the SSA determined she had an RFC to do medium work, because of her marginal education, the grids directed a finding of disabled and she was approved.

If you are unsure whether your marginal education will affect your claim, you should speak to an experienced disability attorney in your area.

Illiteracy

The SSA will consider you illiterate if you cannot read or write simple messages, even if you can sign your name. A person who is illiterate usually has little or no education. Under the grid rules specifically, illiteracy is a factor only for people 45 to 54 years old, and it does not guarantee approval of benefits. Here are some examples.

  • A 53-year-old man applied for disability because of mild emphysema. The claimant could only sign his name and was unable to read or write. He hadn't worked in the last 15 years. Even though the SSA determined he could do light work, given his illiteracy, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
  • A 45-year-old woman applied for disability because of heart disease, diabetes, and fibromyalgia. She was unable to read or write. Her past work was as an unskilled packer on a production line. Her RFC was for sedentary work (sit-down jobs). Given her inability to read and write, the grids directed a finding of disabled.
  • A 37-year-old man applied for disability due to lumbar and thoracic back pain. He was unable to read or write. His past work was as a field hand, which is unskilled. The SSA determined he could still do a sit-down job. Even though he was illiterate, the grids directed a finding of not-disabled because of his young age.

Inability to Communicate in English

Until April 27, 2020, claimants who had severe physical impairments and were unable to read, write, and speak in English could be approved more easily under the grid rules. Specifically, claimants who were age 45-49 whose doctors limit them to sedentary work could be granted disability benefits if they had no job skills (meaning they had only done unskilled work), could no longer do their former job, and couldn't speak English. Claimants who were age 50-54 whose doctors limited them to light work could be granted disability benefits if they had no job skills, could no longer do their former job, and couldn't speak English.

As of April 27, 2020, Social Security's grid rules no longer recognizes the inability to communicate in English as part of the grid rules. This rule change applies to new applications filed on and after April 27 and to pending claims on and after the effective date; in other words, the new rule applies to any determination or decision that Social Security makes after April 27, including for continuing disability reviews (CDRs).

The following workers will be affected by this rule change when they can no longer do their jobs:

Age 45-49, limited to sit-down jobs. Social Security expects unskilled workers who are age 45-49 to learn enough English to get a sit-down job rather than going disability benefits.

Age 50-66, limited to sit-down jobs. Unskilled workers age 50 and older who are limited to sit-down jobs will be approved for benefits whether they speak English or not (unless they have had recent job training to help them get skilled work).

Age 50-54, limited to light work. Unskilled workers age 50-54 who have been limited to light work and who graduated from high school will need to learn enough English to get a light work job rather than receive disability benefits. If they didn't graduate from high school, these unskilled workers age 50-54 will get disability benefits under the grid rules, regardless of their English skills.

Social Security judges and examiners may still consider the inability to speak English on a case-by-case basis when deciding what jobs a claimant can retrain for—for instance, a claimant in most areas of the U.S. without good English skills probably couldn't do the job of store manager, because that job requires communicating with employees and the public.

More Information

This was an overview of how Social Security classifies education levels and how these education levels are treated by the grid rules, but we have several other articles that will help you better understand how the grids work and how to understand the other factors used in the grids. You can learn more by reading our articles on the grid rules, the importance of your RFC, how the SSA defines the skill level of your past work, and the transferability of skills.

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